If you’re on holiday in North Devon, you may be looking for things to do in Ilfracombe. Ilfracombe is an underrated North Devon town (although it is still popular with summer staycationers!). It is one of the most picturesque harbour towns in the region and is ideal for enjoying the great British seaside.
Although the town itself is a little dated, it is a very historic place, and its nature is spectacular. If you want to base somewhere and see not only the most beautiful places to visit in North Devon, but also the rugged coastline of Exmoor that spans into Somerset, and countless coastal and inland attractions, Ilfracombe is an excellent option.
Plus, Ilfracombe is the place to go if you want to visit one of my favourite places on earth – Lundy Island. Boats leave from here a few days a week to make the two-hour trip, or you can book with private boats to go snorkelling with seals and do other activities.
Here are all of the best things to do in Ilfracombe – Devon beaches, nature trails, town attractions and more!
Ilfracombe is a popular North Devon holiday town, but it’s also got a rich history that is worth knowing about! The town dates back to the iron age, when local Dunomii tribes built a fort in nearby Hillsborough.
The first mention of its name was recorded in the 11th century. Then, it was known as the tongue twister ‘Alfreinscoma’, which means ‘the valley of the sons of Alfred’. Over time, this name changed to what it is today, Ilfracombe.
The historic harbour dates back from the Medieval period. It was recorded as a place that provided King John with men and ships to invade Ireland in 1208. Some of the buildings around the harbour area still date back to the 15th century.
It is also renowned for being where the Bowen family lived. James Bowen, who lived in the 18th century, was the master of HMS Queen Charlotte and famously fought at the ‘Glorious First of June’ Battle in the French Revolutionary Wars.
In the early 19th century, Ilfracombe was still a busy harbour, with lots of ship traffic. Shortly after, the Ilfracombe tunnels were created, which enabled people to access some of the beaches by horse and carriage. This caused an influx of tourism to the region, and Ilfracombe became a popular Victorian resort town.
The town has remained a tourist spot to this day, and is one of the best places to stay in Devon. While some of the buildings are a little dated, the town has a lovely charm, and the scenery is spectacular.
Things to do in Ilfracombe
Walk around Ilfracombe Harbour
Ilfracombe harbour is a beautiful place, especially when the sun is out. You’ll be able to enjoy the fun holiday atmosphere of the North Devon town, enjoy ice creams from a waterside stall, and watch the boats in the harbour.
You can walk from the harbour to the other side of town and Wildersmouth Beach. This is undoubtedly one of the best things to do in Ilfracombe because you’ll be able to take in the town’s atmosphere and it is completely free!
See the bronze statue of Verity, a pregnant woman on the harbour
Ilfracombe has an unusual statue that welcomes people into the harbour. Verity is a 20 metre high pregnant women made of bronze and stainless steel and part of her stomach is bisected, showing a fetus inside.
The statue of Verity was created by Damien Hirst and was loaned to North Devon for five years – but this was nine years ago, and it is still there now! It is supposed to represent truth and justice; it has many fans and plenty of critics too.
You’ll see this statue while you’re walking around the harbour – you can’t miss it – but take some time to see it up close!
Take a boat trip around the coastline with Ilfracombe Sea Safari
Ilfracombe Sea Safari runs boat trips to areas including Exmoor National Park, Lynmouth Beach, and Woolacombe – which has been voted not only the best Devon beach but also the best beach in Britain!
These boat trips are some of the best things to do in Devon. They are a great opportunity to see wildlife, including seals, as well as spot beautiful waterfalls along the coastline and see beaches from a completely different angle.
They also offer sunset cruises and fast boats to Lundy Island. Rates are reasonable, and it’s a fantastic holiday activity for all the family.
Visit the best Ilfracombe beaches
While Ilfracombe is famous for its harbour, there are lots of amazing beaches in town too. In fact, it’s one of the best seaside towns in North Devon because it has so many beautiful beaches!
- Wildersmouth Beach is a short walk from the harbour and is a great place to spend some time and enjoy all the restaurants and shops of the seaside town. Take a look at the rock pools and even take a paddle in the ocean.
- Ilfracombe Beach is right by the harbour and, when the tide is out, is a great place to relax and sunbathe, build sandcastles, or do whatever else you like to do at the beach!
- Cheyne Beach is a short walk from the harbour. It’s more like a patch of sand than a beach – it’s tiny – but it has some lovely scenic rocks to explore.
- Rapparee Cove is a small cove by Ilfracombe. It is a beautiful place, but it was the site of a tragedy in the late 18th century. The beach the Transport London boat shipwrecked in 1796 – tragically killing many African people who were enslaved on board the ship. It’s important to be aware of this tragedy when visiting.
If you like surfing, some of the best North Devon beaches for watersports are close by. The golden sands of both Woolacombe Beach and Saunton Sands are nearby and are both excellent for catching some waves. You can take a bus to Woolacombe, but it’s best to drive if you want to reach Saunton Sands.
Explore the Ilfracombe tunnels
The Ilfracombe tunnels are a unique attraction that helped to put this small fishing village on the map as a Victorian holiday destination. These were carved out in the 1820s to give horse and carts access to the beach, which was, until then, only accessible by climbing over rocks.
Nowadays, they are privately owned, and you must pay a small sum to enter, but you’ll be able to learn about how the tunnels were built and explore the network of tunnels, beaches and swimming spots. The Tunnels is also a beautiful wedding venue!
See the local marine life at the Ilfracombe Aquarium
If you want to visit a family attraction on a rainy day, why not go to the Ilfracombe Aquarium? This is a great way to learn about the North Devon sea – there’s plenty of information about flora and fauna found in the rivers, estuaries and seas nearby, as well as Lundy Island!
Walk to the viewpoint of Ilfracombe
If you walk east of the town and follow the South West Coast Path, you’ll venture up some cliffs and eventually be graced with a beautiful view of Ilfracombe (Google maps location here). You’ll be able to see the entire town, including the curious landmark theatre, and you might be able to make out the statue of Verity. It’s a wonderful spot to see the ships go in and out and admire this section of the North Devon coastline.
Walk to Hele Beach
Hele Beach is a small bay near Ilfracombe and it’s well worth visiting while you’re in town. The walk is reasonably difficult – you will need to climb up and down a big hill – but it shouldn’t take you too long. If you’ve already walked to the viewpoint, you’re halfway there!
It’s worth it for the view when you’re there – Hele Beach is incredibly scenic. It can get busy at the weekends and during school holidays, but it’s a lot quieter if you visit out of season. There is a pub, so you’ll be able to get a nice cold drink after your walk!
If you don’t fancy walking, you can also drive to Hele Beach in just five minutes – there is a car park close by.
Stroll around the Ilfracombe Museum (perfect on a rainy day)
Ilfracombe Museum is in the town centre and is one of the best things to do in Devon in the rain. The town museum details life in Ilfracombe, including a Victorian kitchen, an exhibition on historical tools and trades, a gallery of the town and an exhibition about Lundy Island.
The museum is open from 10am-4pm Tuesday to Thursday, 10am-1pm on Fridays, and 1:30pm-4pm on Saturdays and Mondays. It costs £4.00 for adult entry and it is free for children under 16.
Have a game of crazy golf
One of the best British seaside holiday activities is to play crazy golf. Ilfracombe has a fun 15 hole course which is great for adults and kids alike! It costs £4.00 for adults and £3.50 for children and is open from 10am – 8pm every day.
Try a Devonshire cream tea at one of the many cafes
When you’re in Devon, you’ve got to try a cream tea! This is a small meal typically served as an afternoon snack. Popular in Devon and Cornwall, it consists of scones with clotted cream and jam. The main difference between a Devonshire cream tea and a Cornish cream tea is the order in which you put the cream and jam on the scone. In Cornwall, jam goes on first, whereas in Devon, the cream goes on first! Make sure that you get it right – you’ll be met with nods of approval from the locals!
Day trip to Lundy Island from Ilfracombe
Lundy Island is the perfect spot for a day trip. With its lofty cliffs and diverse range of wildlife, it’s a great place to explore! Don’t miss the ranger tours which cover the south part of the island – you’ll learn lots of information about the island’s history and wildlife. Also, visit the two lighthouses, and try to walk the whole length of the island if you have time! If you’re visiting Lundy on a warm day, you could also go swimming or snorkelling in the sea.
Another way to visit Lundy Island is by doing a snorkelling trip. These tours will take you to a spot by the island where you can swim with a colony of seals. After the snorkelling, you will be able to explore the island for a short while.
If you have more time, it’s well worth staying on Lundy Island for a few days! You can book accommodation here.
Walk to Combe Martin on the South West Coast Path
The South West Coast Path runs from Minehead in Somerset to Poole in Dorset. You can just hike a section around Ilfracombe – one of which is the route to Combe Martin.
This walk is five miles or eight kilometres long, and while it does have some hills, it’s not too difficult – and the views of the coast are spectacular. You’ll walk past the beautiful Watermouth Harbour and Broadsands Beach, which on a clear day look like they could be in Thailand!
The most challenging part is the last bit into Ilfracombe, where you do have to walk up and down a couple of steep hills.
Hike the South West Coast Path to Mortehoe or Woolacombe
You could also walk the South West Coast Path in the opposite direction, to Mortehoe or Woolacombe. Ilfracombe to Mortehoe is about 10 kilometres or 13 miles. You’ll see some epic vistas of the stunning coastline, passing through bays like Lee Beach, finishing by Morte Point, which protrudes out into the sea. If you carry on the hike into Woolacombe, you can easily take a bus back to Ilfracombe.
Hike or bike the Tarka Trail
The Tarka Trail is one of the best nature trails in Devon, and it’s easy to access from Ilfracombe. Named after a fictional otter called Tarka, it takes in North Devon’s coastal and inland towns and is a great way to see the region’s nature. The entire route is 180 miles, but you can easily do a shorter chunk while staying in Ilfracombe.
If cycling, you can do a circular trip from Ilfracombe, that takes in Woolacombe, Georgeham and Braunton, which then loops back into Ilfracombe. This route passes through both busy roads and tarmacked cycle trails.
If you’re walking, you can follow the South West Coast Path, or alternatively, take a bus to Barnstaple and walk down the River Torridge to Instow, and then up the river Taw to Bideford, where you can take a return bus to Ilfracombe. This hike is around 10 miles and takes 3-4 hours – nearly the whole way is flat.
Learn about history at Hele Corn Mill
Hele Corn Mill is a 16th century flour mill that is still operational to this day. Located just outside of Ilfracombe, you can visit the mill to see how the flour is made, and enjoy a bite to eat in their attractive tea room.
Visit Watermouth Castle
Watermouth Family Theme Park is located halfway between Ilfracombe and Combe Martin, and it’s a great place for a family day out. It’s an old Victorian castle turned into a theme park, with rides both outside and inside. It is one of the best things to do in Devon in the rain if you have kids in tow! Watermouth Family Theme Park is a short drive from Ilfracombe, or you can also walk there.
Day trip to Exmoor National Park
If you’re a nature lover, it’s well worth doing a day trip to Exmoor National Park. Ilfracombe is right near the park’s boundary – Combe Martin is only a 15 minute drive away, where you can enjoy the epic coastline. Alternatively, visit the pretty fishing village of Lynton and Lynmouth and enjoy Lynmouth Beach.
You can go hiking in Exmor National Park – these routes are difficult and contain lots of steep hills, but it’s great for adventurous travellers and experienced hikers! Take a look at my Minehead to Porlock walk guide for more information about this part of Exmoor.
Where to stay in Ilfracombe
The Avoncourt Lodge is a friendly family-run bed and breakfast. Rooms are cleaned to a high standard and have their own attached en suite. There are attractive gardens attached to the property. Click here to reserve your stay.
The Grand Harbour Hotel is a newly opened hotel just steps away from Ilfracombe’s harbour area. It has spacious, sunny rooms with modern features and en suite bathrooms with power showers. Click here to reserve your stay.
The Devonian is a boutique hotel based in Ilfracombe. It features modern, trendy rooms with attractive artwork on the walls. There is also a sauna and spa on site. Click here to reserve your trip.
The Best Ilfracombe Attractions
This list of all of the best Ilfracombe attractions should help you when planning a trip to this North Devon coastal town! Whether you’re into hiking, watersports, history, or are seeking family-friendly attractions, you’lll find plenty to love in Ilfracombe.